The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra opens its new season with a strong and memorable concert that had something for everyone — with no outside help from a guest artist

October 4, 2019
4 Comments

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ALERT: On this Saturday, Oct. 5, from 4 to 5 p.m., cellist Amit Peled will teach a master class at Farley’s House of Pianos, 6522 Seybold Road, near West Towne Mall, where he will instruct local students. This is a FREE event that the public is invited to observe, and is part of the two concerts by Peled and pianist Daniel del Pino. For more information, go to:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2019/09/29/classical-music-cellist-amit-peled-and-pianist-daniel-del-pino-open-the-salon-piano-series-this-friday-and-saturday-nights-with-music-by-beethoven-strauss-and-others/

By Jacob Stockinger

Many orchestras, including the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers), often use the opening concert of a new season as a chance to lure audiences by wowing them with some big-name guest soloist.

But last weekend maestro John DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson) once again preferred to show off his own ensemble. And it worked, making for a memorable concert.

The MSO opener had something for everyone, and what you saw as the highlight probably depended more on your personal taste or preference than on the overall impressively tight playing and singing of the MSO, its principals and its chorus.

It seemed clear that, for most listeners the MSO’s young organist Greg Zelek (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) filled the role of the impressive imported star or guest artist.

The virtuosic Zelek is simply so good that he managed to turn a second-rate piece by Samuel Barber into a first-rate crowd-pleaser that brought huge applause and a long standing ovation, then an encore and another standing ovation.

As music, the concerto-like “Toccata Festiva” (1960) is simply not on par with Barber’s Violin Concerto or his Adagio for Strings or his Overture to “The School for Scandal.” It is 15 minutes of mostly loud and bombastic music meant to show off the new organ that it was commissioned for.

The King of Instruments seems to invite such bragging. And the boyish, vest-clad Zelek milked the score by Barber (below) for all it was worth, including an astounding three-minute cadenza played only with the feet. It’s hard to argue with such dramatic success.

If you preferred more serious fare, there was the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Antonin Dvorak (below). Last spring, DeMain announced his fondness for Dvorak – in the spring the MSO will perform his Requiem.

DeMain’s feeling for Dvorak showed in a convincing and engaging performance of this darker, non-programmatic Brahmsian work that goes beyond the Czech folk dances, folk song-like melodies and nature mimicry of Dvorak’s other major symphonies and chamber music.

If you wanted exciting Romanticism, it would be hard to beat Wagner’s rhythmic strings soaring in the Overture to the opera “Tannhauser” by Richard Wagner (below). And that flowed into Wagner’s sensual “Venusberg” music that featured the MSO chorus singing offstage.

But The Ear thinks that the best measure of musicianship – orchestral, instrumental or vocal — is not how loudly they can play or sing, but how softly.

For that reason, he found the standout work at the concert to be “Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (below). The balance among various sections proved ideal at expressing subtlety. You could hear everything combining to make a distinctive and atmospheric tonal color.

For example, it is hard to imagine more sensual playing of the opening theme than how principal flutist Stephanie Jutt (below) did it. The performance and interpretation projected the exact kind of impressionistic seductiveness that the composer meant for it to have. For sheer beauty of sound, it took the top spot. (You can see a graphic depiction of Debussy’s score in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Still, there seemed to be more than the usual number of empty seats. Was it the rainy weather? The football weekend? Or do people still miss the thrill of hearing a well-known guest artist opening the season?

What do you think?

What was your favorite piece on the opening MSO program? And why?

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Today is the Fourth of July. Here is patriotic music to help celebrate, including a portrait of a truly presidential president for the purpose of comparison

July 4, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Today is the Fourth of July – a celebration of Independence Day when the United States officially declared its separation from Great Britain in 1776.

The day will be marked by picnics and barbecues, by local parades and spectacular fireworks – and this year by armored tanks and fighter jets in yet another expensive display of military power by You Know Who: that loudmouth man who overcompensates for dodging the draft by acting more like King George than George Washington.

The “Salute to America” sure looks like it is really going to be a “Salute to Trump.”

But whatever your politics, your preferences in presidents or the festive activities you have planned for today, there is classical music to help you mark and celebrate the occasion. Just go to Google and search for “classical music for the Fourth of July.”

Better yet, tune into Wisconsin Public Radio, which will be featuring American classical music all day long.

In addition, though, here are some oddities and well-known works that The Ear particularly likes and wants to share.

The first is the Russian immigrant composer and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his own version of our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” something he apparently did out of respect for his adopted country before each recital he played in the U.S.:

And the second is by another Russian immigrant and piano virtuoso, Vladimir Horowitz, who was a friend and colleague of Rachmaninoff. Here he is playing his piano arrangement, full of keyboard fireworks that sound much like a third hand playing, of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” by American march king John Philip Sousa. Horowitz used the patriotic march to raise money and sell war bonds during World War II, then later used as an encore, which never failed to wow the audience:

For purposes of artistic and political comparisons of presidents, you will also find Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” – with famous actor and movie star Henry Fonda as the narrator of Honest Abe’s own extraordinary oratory and understated writing — in the YouTube video at the bottom.

And in a ironic twist The Ear can’t resist, here are nine pieces — many orchestral and some choral –chosen by the official website of the BBC Music Magazine in the United Kingdom to mark and honor American Independence Day. It has some surprises and is worth checking out:

http://www.classical-music.com/article/nine-best-works-independence-day

If you like or favor other works appropriate to the Fourth of July or have comments, just leave word and a YouTube link if possible, in the Comment section.

The Ear wants to hear.


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Classical music: Autumn arrives today. What composers, works and instruments do you like to listen to in fall? The Ear favors late Brahms – specially the strings, the piano and the clarinet

September 22, 2018
6 Comments

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By Jacob Stockinger

Fall arrives today.

The autumn equinox will occur at 8:54 p.m. Central Daylight Time.

As the days get markedly shorter and the night longer, one’s mood often changes as do one’s listening preferences.

Many composers have written pieces about autumn, and you are sure to hear many of them on Wisconsin Public Radio or other media outlets.

But The Ear has his favorites.

Not for nothing is the late music of Johannes Brahms described as autumnal, both because it happens late in the composer’s life and because of its bittersweet sounds, its poignant harmonies and its melancholy melodies.

For The Ear, you will find it in most of late Brahms, especially in the slow movements. He loves the string music – the violin, the cello and especially the viola sonatas – as well as the clarinet sonatas and piano intermezzi.

Below are three samples.

Here is the slow movement from the Violin Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, played by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Daniel Barenboim:

Here is the slow movement of the Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, for, in this case, clarinet or viola:

And here is a particularly moving piano intermezzo, Op. 117, No. 2, in B-flat minor, played by Arthur Rubinstein:

And should you still be unsure what music you like for the fall, here is a link to two hours of music for fall  — vocal and instrumental music by Antonio Vivaldi, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn  Alexander Glazunov, Peter Tchaikovsky, Giuseppe Verdi, Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler and others — put together by Minnesota Public Radio:

Is there a special composer who evokes autumn for you?

What instruments most speak to you of fall?

Are there special works you like to listen to in autumn?

Leave your thoughts in the COMMENT section, along with a link to a YouTube performance if possible.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are lists of the Best Classical Recordings of 2017 as named by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes magazine and Gramophone magazine

December 16, 2017
8 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

Just in time for last-minute holiday shopping and streaming – whether by others or yourself – some major publications and critics have published their lists of the top classical recording of 2017.

Personal preferences and taste matter, to be sure. So opinions inevitably differ.

But in some cases, the verdicts seem close to unanimous.

Take the case of some pianists.

You can, for example, find overlapping agreement on the merits of the 24-year-old Italian pianist and Cliburn Competition silver medal laureate Beatrice Rana playing the famed Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Same for the 33-year-old Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olaffson who gives revelatory readings of works by contemporary American Minimalist composer Philip Glass.

And many critics give raves to acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes playing neglected piano miniatures by Finnish symphonic titan Jean Sibelius. (See Andsnes discussing Sibelius in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

The various lists cover all genres from solo piano music to songs, chamber music to symphonies, oratorios to operas.

You can find lots of neglected repertoire — both early and new — unknown artists and small labels.

But there are also major stars, tried-and-true repertoire and large vintage or heritage labels.

In short, both beginners and experienced classical listeners and players can find plenty to please them.

In addition, some of the lists for the past year include links to lists from previous years. And those lists too still have some excellent choices that hold up.

Here is a link to the 2017 list in The New York Times, which was compiled by several critics:

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/13/arts/music/best-classical-music-recordings-2017.html

Here is a list by a critic and columnist for Forbes magazine:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenslaurson/2017/12/13/the-10-best-classical-recordings-of-2017/#60b8fd87ebca

Here is the list from John von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/music/vonrhein/sc-ent-best-classical-recordings-2017-1206-story.html

And here is a list from the British Gramophone magazine, which often favors artists and groups located in the United Kingdom:

https://www.gramophone.co.uk/feature/the-best-new-classical-albums-december-2017

And in case you missed it before, here are lists from other sources that this blog has posted and linked to:

From famed WQXR-FM radio in New York City:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/classical-music-here-are-the-top-20-classical-recordings-of-2017-as-chosen-by-famed-radio-station-wqxr/

And here are the classical nominations for the 2018 Grammy awards:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2017/12/02/classical-music-here-are-the-classical-music-nominations-for-the-2018-grammy-awards-they-make-a-great-holiday-gift-list-of-gives-and-gets/


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